What Is Articulation In Music?

By Richard Pryn •  Updated: 10/05/22 •  6 min read

Frequently used throughout written music, articulation is an important part of pronouncing the specific tone and duration of each individual note that is played.

What Is Articulation In Music?

But what exactly is articulation, and how important is it? 

What Is Articulation?

The easiest way to explain what articulation really is, at least in terms of its relationship to music, would be to compare it to punctuation within language. 

Punctuation determines the intonation of certain words, the pacing, the rhythm of sentences, and the necessary pauses in between, and in many ways this is the purpose that articulation serves within written music. 

When Is Articulation Used? 

Articulations are used during musical notation, and play an important role in letting musicians know the distinct nature of each musical note that needs to be played. 

Is Articulation Important? 

Ultimately, the importance of articulation depends entirely on how the piece of music is composed and noted down.

Many musicians, especially musicians who are not classically trained, cannot read or write music, and thus notate their music in other ways – such as guitar/bass tablature, or as a list of chords and changes. 

However, if you are working within the world of classical music, then articulations are incredibly important, especially within orchestral settings, where each individually played note (by each individual musician) is pivotal to the quality of the end result.

Articulations denote the timing and intonation each note has, and even describes what needs to happen between each note that is played – including distortion, vibrations, and other background elements of sound that can occur. 

As the old phrase goes, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’, and the same can be said for music – particularly in a professional capacity.  

What Types Of Articulation Are There? 

While there are many different articulations within music, the most prominently used ones include: slurs, phrase marks, staccatos, staccatissimo, accents, sforzando, rinforzando, and legatos. 

However, the majority of the articulations used tend to fall under one of the following four categories: staccato, legato, tenuto, and marcato. 

Staccato

Within musical notation, a staccato is an articulation that represents a note with a shortened duration, or one that is detached from the rest of the piece. 

Legato

The legato is a musical articulation that refers to notes that need to be played smoothly, or more fluidly connected than others.

This is especially important when creating softer, more rhythmic pieces of music, where the flow is important to elicit a specific feeling. 

Tenuto

The tenuto is a musical articulation that refers to a note that needs to be played to its full duration (or even longer), or a note that needs to be played slightly louder than the others in the piece. 

Marcato

The musical articulation indicates a shorter note, a longer chord, or a medium passage, which is needed to be played louder or with greater force than the surrounding musical notes in the section.

Does Articulation Vary By Instrument? 

While the base articulations remain the same, and denote the same things, there are compound articulations, as well as particular strumming and playing patterns, that are used to specifically refer to different families of instruments. 

Woodwind & Brass Instruments

Woodwind and brass players create articulation by a process called ‘tonguing’, which is the use of the tongue to create and stop the flow of air into the instrument.

With these instruments, legatos are played by using the flat of the tongue, such as in a ‘la’ note, and can play a staccato by using the tip of the tongue, as in a ‘tah’ note. 

Stringed Instruments

With stringed instruments, a commonly played articulation is a ‘pizzicato’, which involves plucking the string with your fingers.

This action creates a staccato, but appears differently on paper than traditional staccato articulations. 

When using a bow, rather than your fingers, this is called ‘arco’, which can be used to play staccatos, tenutos, or legatos. 

Within stringed instruments, the legato is when you allow the string to vibrate in between each note, so as to sustain the sound of the previous note until the next one is played.

On the contrary, when creating a staccato on a stringed instrument, the player needs to nullify the vibration with their finger to limit the sound in between notes. 

Dynamics Vs. Articulations

Many people often confuse the articulations in written music with the dynamics, and to the untrained musician, this is an easy mistake to make. 

What Are Dynamics?

Within musical notation, dynamics serve a different purpose to articulations.

While articulations denote how the specific musical note should be played by the musician (as one might articulate a sentence), the dynamics refer to the volume or pitch at which the musical notes should be played at. 

The two terms go hand in hand, as you can imagine, and together work in tandem to create the overall composition of a piece.

Each component is equally important to the finished product, and likewise has a distinct effect on the other if something is not done correctly. 

One example of this is how a louder dynamic can negatively affect the amount of vibration created on a stringed instrument, which could create more distortion in between notes than is required by the musician.

As such, having the perfect balance is of utmost importance. 

Final Thoughts

And there we have it, everything you need to know about articulations within musical notation, and the important function they have to the whole composition and playing process. 

Musical notation can be a complex thing to wrap your head around, which is why many of the most established musicians in the world cannot often read or write music. 

However, with proper training, and a gradual understanding of what each component does, it is possible to not only become versed in these practices, but to also use them to your advantage when composing new material.

Richard Pryn

Hey there. I am an award winning composer for movie trailers, including Bladerunner 2049, Diablo II, WandaVision, and loads more. I am the founder of The Trailer Music School where my aim is to teach everything I know about music composition, production, and generally being a functional human being. I podcast, blog, vlog and jog (sometimes). I also love coffee, nachos and self-improvement. I live with my wife, three kids and numerous pets. I am also known by my pseudonym, Richard Schrieber (it’s a long story).